I know that using was as a relative pronoun in written German is frowned upon, so I would like to avoid it, but how can I improve the following sentence so that it doesn’t use was?

Das ist das Thema von gestern mit dem Word/PDF-Extrahieren, was bei dem Kunden nicht 100% funktioniert.

I have the feeling I should use welches but that sounds too high register for the informal e-mail tone I am writing, and das doesn’t seem to have the same meaning.

  • 4
    Nobody mentioned it yet but imo "Das ist das Thema mit dem substantiviertes Wort" sounds really awkward. You might want to rephrase that. I'm not even sure whether "Thema mit ..." makes any sense.
    – musiKk
    Commented Sep 21, 2011 at 18:50

5 Answers 5


"Was" as a relative pronoun is correct here.

What you want to avoid are constructions like

Das Auto, was da drüben steht.

Here, the relative pronoun has an actual noun to refer to ("Auto"); therefore, "das Auto, das..." is better.

In your example, the pronoun refers to a circumstance, which makes "was" the better choice.

  • 3
    Why do you say the pronoun refers to a circumstance? Doesn't it just refer to "Word/PDF-Extrahieren"? Commented Sep 21, 2011 at 15:05
  • 1
    Oh, my bad. That's a mistake (I was interrupted while I was writing the answer). Now you put it that way, I guess "das" doesn't sound so bad anymore. The reason I would use "was" is because the relative pronoun refers to a gerund.
    – elena
    Commented Sep 21, 2011 at 16:15

In standard German, this sentence has slightly different meanings depending on whether you use "das" or "was". With "was", the referent can only be the process of Word/PDF extraction as a whole, not a particular instance or type of extraction. The version with "das" also allows that interpretation, but also allows a restrictive interpretation of the relative clause, where its referent is a particular instance or type of Word/PDF extraction being attempted that doesn't work for the client. Interpreting the version with "was" in this restrictive sense would require "was" to be used in the sense that you say is "frowned upon" (but which is common in some dialects), whereas, as elena noted, in the non-restrictive sense "was" refers to a "circumstance" and this usage is standard.


I agree with @musiKk; you can leave the "was" or substitute it with "das/welches/jenes/dieses", but rephrasing the sentence would be much better. If you use "das" in the second half-sentence, it would be the third occurrence overall.

Das ist das Thema von gestern mit dem XYZ, was […]

may be replaced by

Ich meine das Thema XYZ von gestern mit dem, welches […]

or something alike.


Personally I would use something like:

Ich spreche davon, dass das Extrahieren von Word/PDF-Dateien gestern bei dem Kunden nicht zu 100% funktionierte.

Well, actually I wouldn't even use "nicht zu 100%" but "nicht richtig".

(BTW: how to extract Word/PDF-files? Do you probably mean archives of some sort?)


It is entirely correct to feel bad when using "was" the way it is in the example given:

Das ist das Thema von gestern mit dem Word/PDF-Extrahieren, was bei dem Kunden nicht 100 % funktioniert.

The grammar may be correct but still this sentence does not say clearly what is meant by "was". The relative pronoun "was" references the subject of the preceding clause, and that could also be "Thema" like:

Yesterday's subject on extracting documents does not work.

This of course does not make any sense. Therefore people may still understand it in a colloquial setting. In other sentences it may work the other way round:

Das ist das Leid mit dem Verstehen einer Sprache, was ich sogar nachvollziehen kann.

Note that this example is not good style either, because we do not really know what is being understood here.

If you want to be clear it may be better to keep the diction simple by not using relative clauses:

  • Das ist das gestrige Thema über das bei dem Kunden nicht 100 % funktionierende Word/PDF-Extrahieren.
  • In your last example sentence, you completely shift the emphasis, giving the sentence a different meaning as far as I see it. And why don't you want to use "das" instead of "was"? But the first sentence I also read in a way that the "was" refers to "Thema", which is not meant here. Commented Sep 21, 2011 at 18:23
  • @Takkat: Are you sure that "was" can only refer to "Thema"? I really doubt that but after looking into Duden and Wahrig I still can't find references.
    – musiKk
    Commented Sep 21, 2011 at 18:44
  • 2
    This is wrong. I'm a native German speaker, and it would never have occurred to me to let "was" refer to "Thema". There is no rule that a relative pronoun only or even preferentially refers to the subject of the preceding clause, neither in German nor in any other language I speak. In the present case, "was" can only refer to "Thema" in its dialectal version, where it can take the place of "das"; in standard German it can only refer to "Word/PDF-Extrahieren".
    – Felix Pahl
    Commented Sep 21, 2011 at 19:20
  • @Hendrik: yeah, the last example is a different. I just made it to give an example on how to use was more clearly.
    – Takkat
    Commented Sep 21, 2011 at 20:32
  • 1
    @Takkat You are saying that the topic doesn't work at the customers PC; "das Thema, was nicht funktioniert", that's odd. "Was" definitely refers to the extracting of files.
    – feeela
    Commented Sep 21, 2011 at 22:53

Simply use "das" instead. I agree that "welches" sounds too formal.

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